Flattening out the “slippery slope”

People–especially religious sorts of people, at all points on the theological spectrum–seem to have a love affair with the phrase “slippery slope”. It is only invoked when actions and decisions go in a direction of which the speaker/writer disapproves. Look carefully, and I doubt you will frequently see the words “slippery slope” applied to something in a positive, complimentary way.

Conservative Christians who own for-profit corporations believe that the Affordable Care Act is a “slippery slope” on which their consciences will be injured if they have to provide health insurance to their employees that covers forms of birth control of which they disapprove. They believe that a presidential mandate preventing discrimination against employees based on their sexual orientation, which applies only to those providing services to the federal government on a contract basis, is somehow going to interfere with their ability to hire or dismiss people on religious grounds. Oooh, slippery slope to a Godless America.

Progressive Christians (and progressive past-Christians such as myself) are seduced into the “slippery slope” language when there is a supposed “win” for conservative Christian groups such as last week’s Hobby Lobby case. It will put women in danger, it raises questions about whether an employee can be fired for accessing the restricted forms of birth control on a spouse’s insurance from another company. It makes it possible for a for-profit company, run by religious individuals, to treat the employment agreement as a blanket permission to monitor the off-duty (mostly sexual) behavior of employees. Oooh, slippery slope to a conservative Christian theocracy in America.

(As a matter of full disclosure, I’m more worried about the latter than the former.)

My Facebook feed for the better part of the past week has been littered with the “slippery slope” thing, almost inevitably referring back to the Hobby Lobby decision last Monday. And this morning, I got sucked into it again.

I should learn not to check Facebook, or at least not to comment, until I’ve gotten some caffeine. Because, in my early-morning fog, I wondered why the hell Gordon College, an exceptionally conservative Christian college near Boston, Massachusetts, needs a religious exemption to an order concerning Federal contractors.

This morning, my Facebook feed had the following article concerning the President of Gordon College, who has apparently added his signature to a letter to President Obama, asking for religious exemption be granted to companies who supply contract services to the Federal government, to allow them to discriminate against LBGTQ persons in hiring (and, I would conjecture, to allow them to dismiss current employees who could be proven LBGTQ).

While making this request, the letter acknowledges that

Historically, we have been reticent as a nation to use the authority of government to bless some religious identities and ostracize others.

There’s a reason for this. It’s called the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. And it’s exactly why a for-profit company which seeks to provide services to the Federal Government should not be granted religious exemption from anti-discrimination orders.

Religious organizations–churches, monastic communities, religious health-care institutions, schools, colleges and universities–already have exemptions under RFRA which allow them freedom to hire only those individuals who support their religiously-mandated aims, and who uphold their religiously-prescribed way of life. These institutions are explicitly religious in their purposes, and while they may provide services to those outside their own religious belief system, they are institutions under authority.

But a for-profit corporation, even if those who own and operate it have deeply held religious views, cannot ask for a religious exemption for those individuals to circumvent the laws under which other contractors must operate.

Well, they can ask. And it might be granted. But the government would then be obligated not to do business with a contractor that has clearly stated it does not wish (for any reason) to operate under the same regulations as its competitors must. You get an exemption from the law, and the law may come back to bite you in the backside.

Although you are free to exercise your religious beliefs, the federal government cannot (by the same Amendment, oddly enough) “establish” the religion you prefer for whatever scope your contract covers.

The exercise of conscience will always, inevitably, involve conflict–especially when there are competing consciences. You may have the right to “free” exercise of your religion, but “free” in this case means it will not be persecuted by the federal government. It does not mean you can exercise it without cost, including financial cost. You can hire or dismiss whoever you like based on your religious beliefs, but it does not obligate anyone–including the federal government–to do business with you. It is a violation of the dignity and justice which is so boldly trumpeted in this letter to the President.

There is really no “slippery slope” here. There’s a First Amendment. It allows you to discriminate on religious grounds, but does not allow the Federal government to accept your religious bias in carrying out its work.

Be careful what you wish for. If this is granted, it will be seen as another “victory” for conservative Christianity–but it could mean a bigger loss for those companies that want both free exercise and establishment of religion. Even if that establishment is very limited in its scope.

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